MIX EQUAL PARTS a vague Star Wars daydream ("Only you can save America, Luke") and a paranoid Matrix fantasy ("There is no America, Neo, only the System"). Add a dash of old-style political manifesto, a pinch of new-age mysticism, and just a touch of J.S. Mill's On Liberty, and you've got that part of the American left called the Organization--also known as the Resistance, the Movement, and the Struggle.
If you're ready to join, repeat these words: I pledge allegiance to no authority beyond my individualism. I have taken the burden of the masses upon my shoulders and will suffer and die if necessary in bringing the greatest amount of good to the greatest number. . . . I declare myself a member of The Organization and a sister/brother to the Resistance.
This comes from the Grey Book, the official dogma of the Organization, a conglomeration of "communists, anarchists, students, artists, rebels, idealists, free minds, brothers off the block and sisters from the struggle" joining together to form "a freedom fighting band of badass revolutionaries [with] goals no longer limited to late night sessions of intellectual bull[--]. . . . For once, all their struggles became one."
These are the protesters who were arrested by the hundreds in New York during the Republican convention. They have their own code, which includes Four Tenets ("Know yourself and be in constant pursuit of social-individualism," is a sufficient example). There's a Five Point Platform ("Educate, Consolidate, Retaliate, Revolt, and Reconstruct") and also a Ten Point Program (which begins by calling for "An end to self-interested war, conquest, and imperialism" and ends with "the establishment of a social system in which every individual is continuously empowered to improve their society").
Then there are the Eleven Divisions (including "Defense, Culture, and Community Survival"). And on top of all this is slathered the necessity of doing it with style: "There are three qualities that an Organization member must possess: dedication, candor, and panache."
These heroic new-age utilitarians, fighting for the greatest good for the greatest number--or are they followers of William Blake, each aligned only with his own individualism?--unite to stand against the System, also known as Pax-Americana which, conveniently, resembles Darth Vader's Death Star in its all-encompassing evil. This System's power "is not a physical one; instead of fighting a tyrannous opponent who would kill us to preserve power, we face one that will buy us not to."
I first encountered the Organization at Manhattan's Union Square, ground zero for the local protest scene. A young man was arguing vociferously with the park police, who'd asked him to move his table. I'd been collecting protest literature all day, so while he was so engaged, I picked up his copy of a palm-sized mimeographed manifesto that I presumed was meant for distribution. This was the Grey Book--and not just any Grey Book, but Version 0.775, as it said near the top of the first page--adding, gnomically, "The present is prologue."
ON MY TRAIN RIDE HOME, I read all thirty-five pages of the tiny print that asked the tough questions:
What if humans started off as driven slaves with a whip-master behind them, progressed to a stage at which they were only driven but not whipped, and then to a stage at which they could stand enchained on their own? Perhaps modern society is one in which we all wear really shiny chains? Should we be satisfied with this stage of resistance? Or should we resist?
This vague paranoia, in which less oppression is more, is fundamentally middle class in its bias, bourgeoisie in the most pejorative sense. Ennui is no less an evil in this model than true suffering: "Our society has created subjective suffering. There is as much oppression for the black father in Harlem working three jobs to feed his family, as there is for teenage girl who has been taught that she must look like a Barbie doll." And in a world where young girls are taught to look pretty, can there be any alternative to revolution? . . . Our movement is based upon necessity. When we wake up we are blessed and cursed with the profound understanding that the very nature of this system is what keeps us its slave.
The Organization seems confused about its relation to the people, repeatedly castigating the "95 percent of society in the bottom half, blind and uncaring" and comparing them unfavorably to "the Permanent Adversarial Culture, advocates of truth and Freedom." Still the freedom fighters must act on behalf of the drooling masses: "Unfortunately, we cannot know what the cumulative will of all people is at all times--but in order to best approximate this, we accept the participation of anyone willing to commit themselves to ideals of the revolution."
But at heart this is a spiritual quest for the disaffected, those who feel they weren't made for these times--those who feel disoriented and angered by the vast, dangerous, and confusing world we are all forced to navigate:
At some point we woke up and the world was scary because we weren't going to grow up to be astronauts and cowboys. We thought we were special, we thought we were unique, and then the one day came when life seemed to make less sense. . . . We clung to something, anything that would restore meaning to our shattered existence. . . . We watched some of the best minds of our generation stumble toward adulthood dazed and confused, their talents squandered, and their hopes crushed. They turned to drugs, alcohol, and escapism so as to never face the growing problems reality presented.
The Grey Book's scarcely specified struggle against a vaguely evil system reminds me of the graffiti that covered New York while I was growing up. It was at the same time a protest against corporate style logos, and a replication of them, its own form of branding. The Organization's battle is not really against America or capitalism. What they hate is reality:
If society dictates the human condition and the human condition dictates reality, then our rebellion is against the present reality. . . . We must accept there is no guiding reason for events within our life outside of the self and that to get free we must be in constant pursuit of our dreams.
Protests and manifestos, of course, are easy targets for those who disagree with their politics. But the Grey Book is worth a look, if only because it expresses perfectly the mixture of mental incoherence and emotional unity that infects much of the left these days. The Organization's slogans fit easily with the signs, shirts, and slogans that lined Seventh Avenue during the big march against the Republican convention. It's not too much to ask for more from our internal opposition than such vague and solipsistic cant.
The authors of the Grey Book complain they are simultaneously "blessed and cursed." That is, one might point out, a definition of the human condition. But unlike the rest of us, they plan to do something about it--break the System, create salvation by their own merit, build a new Eden of permanent protest, and eliminate the messiness of the human, all too human.
Harry Siegel is editor of NewPartisan.com.